The invention of the CubeSat standard by the California Polytechnic State University ushered in a revolution in the utilization and exploration of space by both governmental and civilian users. With a total volume as small as a 1,000 cubic centimeters, cubesats have enabled relatively economical space access for industrial, academic and private organizations that previously couldn’t afford the high costs associated with developing and launching larger satellites. They have also enabled innovative low-cost missions to be conducted by NASA and space agencies around the world.
Now, students and the public are invited to participate in an innovative experimental demonstration of solar sail technology sponsored by the non-profit Aerospace Research & Engineering Systems Institute, Inc. The LunarSail project will be a first of its kind mission to send a cubesat outfitted with a solar sail beyond low Earth orbit.
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A CubeSat is a small satellite in the shape of a 10 centimeter cube and weighs just 1 kilogram. That's about 4 inches and 2 pounds. The design has been simplified so almost anyone can build them and the instructions are available for free online. CubeSats can be combined to make larger satellites in case you need bigger payloads. Deployable solar panels and antennas make Cubesats even more versatile. The cost to build one? Typically less than $50,000.
LunarSail is a demonstration cubesat mission managed by the Aerospace Research & Engineering Systems Institute, Inc. The objective of the project is to prove the ability of a spacecraft under solar sail propulsion to leave Earth orbit and navigate a lunar orbit rendezvous trajectory, culminating in orbital insertion around the Moon. Its mission is to serve as a platform for cubesat operations beyond low Earth orbit and demonstrate practical application of solar sail technology for propulsion, trajectory control and rendezvous with another body in space. With LunarSail, the cubesat platform will be utilized to conduct a first of its kind mission to use a solar sail to send a spacecraft to the Moon and then utilize the sail’s unique characteristics to navigate into lunar orbit.
A Citizen Space Mission
LunarSail is a different kind of space exploration mission from traditional missions sponsored by government agencies. It is a “citizen space mission” and relies on the contributions and participation of the public. A substantial amount of its budget is being fulfilled via crowdfunding and donations from private citizens and supporters of commercial space exploration. There are campaigns active on the crowdfunding websites Indiegogo, RocketHub and Kickstarter in addition to direct donations via the project website. Through crowdfunding, people are able to donate not only financially but also through labor, software programming and ideas, thereby becoming participants and co-owners of the mission – stakeholders in its success.
Following the concept of a citizen space mission, social media outreach is integrated into every aspect of the mission from development and assembly through launch and once the spacecraft is in orbit around the Moon. In addition to radio, cameras and telemetry, social media will be used as a means of communicating to and from the spacecraft. It will be extremely inspiring for people to send their creative works to space and watching them be delivered to a global audience. Students, creative individuals and the public are invited to submit messages, artwork, music and short video clips that will be stored onboard the spacecraft in a reserved area of computer memory storage. Once in lunar orbit, LunarSail will broadcast contributors’ artwork and content for reception on Earth.
An Open Source Architecture
LunarSail is an open-source project. Except for restricted or third-party proprietary hardware, hardware designs and source code will be publicly available on the project website and feedback, ideas and improvements will be sought from the wider community. LunarSail’s primary computer is planned to be based on the Raspberry Pi single-board computer running a version of the Linux operating system. Linux is open source and the software we develop to run on top of it will also comply with open source licensing.
LunarSail will make history. If successful, it will be the first solar sail mission conducted by the private sector and the first solar sail to orbit another celestial body. More importantly, LunarSail is a mission of inspiration and exploration. It will inspire young students to pursue careers in science and engineering. For the wider public audience, the mission will demonstrate the importance of a vibrant commercial space industry and space exploration.
For more information, visit the project website at http://www.lunarsail.com.